"Act like you've been there before." As far as sport clichés go, that is one of my favorites. We see it every weekend. A player scores a meaningless touchdown and then acts as if it was the game winner in the National Championship, beating his chest like he deserves mass envy.
There've been great examples of football players who knew how to handle their success - from Barry Sanders up to Matt Forte. They'd score, hand the ball to the ref, and head to their sideline. I saw it too many times to count from both. But I realized something, that I had never actually seen their very first score. All the graceful touchdown responses I had witnessed had come long after their first score, and they had been there before, a lot. That surely makes it easier to handle the success. So what's ok to do if it really is your very first score? Or maybe it's your first and you fear you may never have another? How do you then act? Well, you act like the 2014 Marshall Thundering Herd fans.
After completing a wonderful 11-1 season and then a Conference USA championship, the Herd and its fans awaited their bowl announcement with high hopes. Would it be The Heart of Dallas Bowl to face the Mighty Illini of Illinois? That was the hopes of some. What says Mid-Major Powerhouse more than beating a perennial B1G bottom feeder in a bowl game that really has nothing on the line?
Nope. Sorry Marshall. That P5 pelt you want so badly on your wall will have to wait. Instead you get little ol' NIU from the MAC in that hell hole called Boca Raton, Fl.
The moaning and crying from the Herd fans has been impossible to not notice. Even the athletic director, Mike Hamrick, in Marshall's Boca Raton Bowl press conference, put qualifiers on the match up to soothe the local media and fans. "Is it the best name football team perception wise? I'm not sure."
"I'm not sure" is just a polite no.
I know Marshall fans are really excited about the team and the direction it's going. Rightfully so. But as an NIU fan, let me just give you a few tips on how this premier mid-major thing works. You see, NIU has gone 52-8 over the last five years. They've been to the Orange Bowl and they've beaten four B1G teams and one Big 12 team during the regular season when it matters. They've also been to seven straight bowl games and had a finalist in the Heisman race. They've accomplished all of this, and are just now starting to gain SOME measure of respect as a premier mid-major.
Consistent winning changes your expectations. At the onset of the Huskies resurgence in '09, I remember them beating Purdue. I thought - "Amazing! We finally beat a B1G team! Season highlight for sure!" Fast forward fifty plus wins to '14 and the reaction I had to NIU beating Northwestern was more along the lines of - "Great, they handled their business. Bring on UNLV."
As a team from one of the bottom three G5 conferences, USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt, it's an extra-long road to gain respect from the media and college fans. A 12-1 Marshall is still at best a so-so team in the eyes of many. Beating a crummy P5 team does nothing to disprove that - especially in a bowl. Do you think a 7-5 Maryland team was pumped to face an 8-4 Conference USA team last year? I don't know, maybe, but I can guarantee you their fans and the media thought they just mailed it in. Nothing to gain. Sort of like how some of you are feeling about your match up with NIU.
Here's what Marshall needs to do to get the respect some of their fans seem to think they've earned in only one great season. First, dominate in multiple successive seasons. The team has gone 35-25 over the same period NIU has gone 52-8. You're going to need to win way more games in that conference to be considered a legitimately elite team. Second, don't lose in conference. You're in a bad conference which makes year strength of schedule terrible. You have an opportunity to run the table every year. If you're as good as you think, losing to Western Kentucky doesn't cut it. Last season NIU had the perfect blue print for you. They beat a decent P5, ran the conference schedule and were set up for a New Year's bowl. Then they lost to Bowling Green in the MAC championship game. That one loss took them from the top of the college football world to nobody. So did your Western Kentucky loss. Third, beat NIU in the Boca Bowl. Here's why-
Earlier I took a quote from the Marshall A.D. to point out how he was justifying this game to the fans and media; later in the interview he actually nailed the real reason why this game is truly a great opportunity for Marshall. If you go to the 11:35 mark of the clip, he points out that the three G5 teams considered for an Access Bowl this year were Boise St, NIU and Marshall. That NIU is basically where Marshall wants to be and by beating NIU in this bowl, it will go a long way to Marshall being in this tier. To be the best you have to beat the best. He makes note that beating a lousy P5 team does nothing for this program, but beating a premier G5 team does a great deal more.
He is right. Beating Illinois does nothing to gauge where Marshall is as a program. Beating any one of the twenty P5 schools who have 7-5 or 6-6 records just lumps you in with a group of teams that had no shot of winning their conference. Not to mention that P5's have less motivation in bowl games against teams from those bottom G5 conferences. So even a win can be brushed off as irrelevant.
But this meeting between the Huskies and the Thundering Herd is anything but irrelevant. It's for G5 eliteness. It gives the winner a share to the title of best G5 program. Boise state would obviously argue this, but until they play one of us, a plausible case can be made for the Boca Bowl winner. The only real track to an Access bowl for teams from the bottom conferences is by being the one best G5 program. This game gives you, for now, that aura.
Marshall has all the resources to get into that top tier of the G5. They have a good fan base. They have resources and big-time backers in Chad Pennington, Chris Cline and Mark D'Antoni. They also have brand recognition. All signs point to Marshall taking that next step to relevance. Now their fans just need to take that next step too. Once again Marshall Matters, so Herd fans please stand up.